Washington - This whole health care thing isn't quite working out the way Republicans planned. My guess is that they'll soon try to change the subject -- but I'm afraid they're already in too deep.
Wednesday's vote to repeal President Obama's health insurance reform law was supposed to be a crowning triumph. We heard confident GOP predictions that cowed Democrats would defect in droves, generating unstoppable momentum that forced the Senate to obey "the will of the people" and follow suit. The Democrats' biggest domestic accomplishment would be in ruins and Obama's political standing would be damaged, perhaps irreparably.
What actually happened, though, is that the Republican majority managed to win the votes of just three Democrats -- all of them Blue Dogs who have been consistent opponents of the reform package anyway. In terms of actual defectors, meaning Democrats who changed sides on the issue, there were none. This is momentum?
The unimpressive vote came at a moment when "the will of the people" on health care is coming into sharper focus. Most polls that offer a simple binary choice -- do you like the "Obamacare" law or not -- show that the reforms remain narrowly unpopular. Yet a significant fraction of those who are unhappy complain not that the reform law went too far but that it didn't go far enough. I think of these people as the "public option" crowd.
A recent Associated Press poll found that 41 percent of those surveyed opposed the reform law and 40 percent supported it. But when asked what Congress should do, 43 percent said the law should be modified so that it does more to change the health care system. Another 19 percent said it should be left as it is.
More troubling for the GOP, the AP poll found that just 26 percent of respondents wanted Congress to repeal the reform law completely. A recent Washington Post poll found support for outright repeal at 18 percent; a Marist poll pegged it at 30 percent.
In other words, what House Republicans just voted to do may be the will of the tea party but it's not "the will of the people."
"The test of a first-rate intelligence," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." By this standard, House Republicans are geniuses. To pass the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," they had to believe that the work of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is both authoritative and worthless.
The CBO, which "scores" the impact of proposed legislation, calculated that the health reform law will reduce federal deficits by at least $143 billion through 2019. Confronted with the fact that repeal would deepen the nation's fiscal woe, Republicans simply claimed the CBO estimate to be rubbish. Who cares what the CBO says, anyway?
Er, um, Republicans care, at least when it's convenient. Delving into the CBO's analysis, they unearthed a finding that they proclaimed as definitive: The reform law would eliminate 650,000 jobs. Hence "Job-Killing" in the repeal bill's title.
One problem, though: The CBO analysis contains no such figure. It's an extrapolation of a rough estimate of an anticipated effect that no reasonable person would describe as "job-killing." What the budget office actually said is that there are people who would like to withdraw from the work force -- sometimes because of a chronic medical condition -- but feel compelled to continue working in order to keep their health insurance. Once the reforms take effect, these individuals will have new options. That's where the "lost" jobs supposedly come from.
The exercise in intellectual contortion that was necessary for the House to pass the repeal bill will be an excellent tune-up for what's supposed to come next. "Repeal and replace" was the promise -- get rid of the Democrats' reform plan and design one of their own. This is going to be fun.
It turns out that voters look forward to the day when no one can be denied insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions. They like the fact that young adults, until they are 26, can be kept on their parents' policies. They like not having yearly or lifetime limits on benefits. The GOP is going to have to design something that looks a lot like Obamacare.
Meanwhile, Obama's approval ratings climb higher every week. Somebody change the subject. Quick!
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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